“If ever there was a country where men loved comfort, pleasure, and material security, good health and conversation about the weather and the World Series and the Rose Bowl; if ever there was a land where silence made men nervous and prayer drove them crazy and penance scared them to death, it is America,” wrote Thomas Merton in The Waters of Siloe in 1949. “Yet, quite suddenly, Americans—the healthiest, most normal, most energetic, and most optimistic of the younger generation of Americans—have taken it into their heads to run off to Trappist monasteries and get their heads shaved and put on robes and scapulars and work in the fields and pray half the night and sleep on straw and, in a word, become monks.”

These days, people aren’t voluntarily running off to a monastery as much as they’ve been confined to one at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we take advantage of these peculiar times of self-isolation and social distancing to unleash the monk within us? To use St. Bruno’s words for Carthusians, how can we be a “communion of solitaries for God” in this crisis?

“Trappist” and “Carthusian” have become synonymous with the rigorous asceticism expected of monks. (At one time in our own Redemptorist community, we were called to be “Carthusians at home and Apostles abroad.”) Asceticism for monks, however, is not an end in itself. Fundamentally, the totality of monastic life is a journey oriented towards the heart. For example, the separation that a cloistered cell provides a monk can only assure an exterior solitude, but it’s meant to help create an atmosphere conducive to interior solitude—a purity of heart that leads to a deeper friendship and union with God. “Our principal endeavor and goal is to devote ourselves to the silence and solitude of the cell. This is holy ground, the area where God and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends” (Carthusian Statutes 4.1).

Rend your hearts, not your facemasks!

At this time, drastic measures of quasi-isolation are required of us to lessen the dangers of transmitting the coronavirus. Not coincidentally for a people of faith, these measures occur during Lent, a penitential season of self-denial and prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that’s conducive to a conversion of heart and closer union with God. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13).

Our current semi-cloistered existence may be a welcome change in routine for many people. For some, the newfound free time presents opportunities for spring-cleaning and rainy day projects.  For others, it means a prolonged connection to cable news that only makes them more anxious and troubled about many things.

Regardless, let us take comfort in the words that Jesus told Martha when her sister Mary sat at his feet: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42).

Therefore, fellow monks, in whatever cell we’re confined to, let us unite as a “communion of solitaries for God”! “Separated from all, we are united to all, for it is in the name of all that we present ourselves to the living God” (Carthusian Statutes 34.2). As Americans, let’s continue to talk about the World Series (if it’s not cancelled), but also practice silence. Let’s stay safe and sane and put a little Gregorian chant on our iTunes while we relax or work.

Above all—as we approach the holiest of weeks—there is need of only one thing: Let’s renew our friendship and union with the Lord! “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35) Will anguish, or distress, or peril—or this pandemic?

Fr. Byron Miller, CSsR
President & Publisher
Liguori Publications